Sunday, September 23, 2012

Artie Shaw and the Perils of Hollywood

From the Lexington, N.C., Dispatch on November 4, 1940:

Artie Shaw, who plays such hot music that his famous clarinet figuratively melts made the mistake of putting his instrument near an electrical connection on the set of Paramount's "Second Chorus" and actually melted its composition mouthpiece.

It was after playing a number with Fred Astaire and Burgess Meredith that Shaw accidentally laid the clarinet in his music case with one end touching a "spider" or open electrical switch on the stage. The mouthpiece was melted immediately with a great shower of sparks. Shaw luckily was not harmed.  

you can check it out, in vintage context, here:,5819556

I hear Shaw did his own stunts in that movie too....

Monday, September 17, 2012

Funny Woody Herman Quote

Woody Herman wasn't the greatest of jazz clarinetists, and he wasn't shy about pointing out his frustrations with the horn from time to time, or the embarassment he sometimes felt when compared to players like Goodman and Shaw. But if Woody was anything, he was a good sport. One particularly funny moment came in an interview with Ralph Gleason, published postumously in Woody Herman: Chronicles of the Herds by William Clancy and Audry Kenton (Schirmer Books, 1995). Here is an excerpt from pages 210-211:

R.G.: Which instrument has been the most fun to play?
Woody: It seems, if I have any natural ability, it comes out on the saxophone, because I can pick up a baritone, or a tenor, or an alto or even a soprano and get a pretty decent sound out of it. Any yet I've fought for years and years to get a really nice clarinet sound and it still escapes me. [...]
R.G.: Would you rather play the clarinet, then? 
Woody: Well, it's a challenge, 'cause I can't make what I want to make on it, whereas with alto, in most instances the only thing is that my thoughts jazzwise on alto are pretty nothing. In other words, you will find that in most cases, it will be a melodic line that I attempt and nothing more.
R.G.: What do you want to do with the clarinet?
Woody: Break it in half! What else?
R.G.: I can see that I am not going to get you in a serious discussion of that.
Woody: No.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (10)

10. Artie Shaw as Composer/Arranger

No introduction to Big Band Clarinet would be complete without mentioning Artie Shaw's role as both composer and arranger. From his days with Austin Wylie in Cleveland, Shaw had worked as an arranger, and that continued for the duration of his musical career. One of his first compositions, Interlude in B-Flat, for strings, pianoless rhythm section, and clarinet, had a role in launching Shaw's career as a leader in 1936. It's worth noting that George Gershwin attended that 1936 performance, and reportedly told Shaw afterwards that the Interlude was "the first innovation in jazz he had heard in his career." (Though Shaw was quick to point out that "George wasn't exactly a jazz expert" the quote is still impressive). (Lees, 15)

While he hired many excellent arrangers for the duration of his career, men such as Jerry Gray, Eddie Sauter, and William Grant Still often served as collaborators or orchestrators of Shaw's arrangement ideas, and unlike most bandleaders of the era, Shaw had a direct hand in almost all of his bands' "book" (Simosko, 232). 

Of Shaw's total recordings, 15% were his own compositions. Perhaps most impressively, of the eight singles for Victor that sold over a million copies, four were his own and all were arranged by him. (Simosko, 231). Among these were his theme song, "Nightmare"  (a forerunner to the modal jazz which would become popular twenty years later), "Traffic Jam", and the early "Back Bay Shuffle" (written as a musical description of the band's rush to catch the last train out of Boston after a late gig).

Oftentimes fans will buy compilation albums with these tunes on them, and many others, without composer credits. I grew up, for example, listening to many of these songs without knowing until twenty years later that Shaw had composed them. It changes our perspective to realize that Shaw was not just a front man or soloist for his band, but the dominant creative and musical mind for the entire ensemble, not unlike the role Duke Ellington played in his.

Further reading:

Lees, Gene. Program Notes to Artie Shaw: A Legacy . 4LP boxed set, Book-of-the-Month Club, 1984.

Simosko, Vladimir. Artie Shaw: A Musical Biography and Discography. The Scarecrow Press, 2000.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (9)

9. Barney Bigard & the Duke Ellington Orchestra * Mood Indigo * 1931

Barney Bigard (1906-1980) was an unusual figure in the history of jazz clarinet. From New Orleans, he was taught by the legendary Lorenzo Tio, Jr., instructor of nearly every great NOLA player we remember from that era--including Sidney Bechet, Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds, Omer Simeon, and Albert Nicholas. Yet of them all, Bigard was the only one who spent significant time, both touring and recording, with a prominent Big Band. That it was Duke Ellington's, arguably the most creative Big Band of them all, is a decided bonus.

Ellington had a love for the clarinet, fostered by his early experience hearing Sidney Bechet, who he referred to as "the foundation" and "symbol" of all jazz. (Dance, p10) For a time early in his career, Duke was able to get Bechet in the band, though Bechet never stayed with one group for very long, and was notoriously in and out of the music business for various reasons. Perhaps it was Ellington's love of the New Orleans Albert-system sound that made Bigard such a perfect fit. It remains one of Duke's great achievements that the New Orleans sound could be so well integrated into such a large ensemble.

The clarinetists of the Ellington band have been sometimes neglected by critics, sometimes over praised. Bigard himself was remarkably outspoken and shrewd in his opinions of the clarinetists inside and outside the band. For those of us distant from the era, it's helpful to read the words of an accomplished player from that era:

What [ Artie ] Shaw did to begin with was to make the clarinet sound unusually beautiful in the upper register. He wasn't a low-register guy, but he was more creative than Benny Goodman. Benny did all the popular tunes and standards, but Shaw made up his own and played them so well. The guy could execute like mad. Benny could also execute, and had much more drive than Artie, but I like Artie for the things that are almost impossible to do on the clarinet.
I thought Buster Bailey was one of the fastest clarinetists there ever was. He had his own style, and I could always tell his playing. He was a good musician with good execution, but he didn't have the jazz drive or the soul in there like Goodman and some other guys. In other words it didn't have the oomph to it. Where Buster was great was in a studio or a show. That's the same way I figure with [ fellow Ellingtonian] Jimmy Hamilton. He's a terrific clarinetist, but he doesn't have that soul to go with what he's doing. He should have been in classical music. He's got that studio tone to begin with, and he plays straight and fluent, but it's not jazz.

Omer Simeon was a fine musician, an unsung hero, and a great clarinet player. 
[from Stanley Dance's The World of Duke Ellington. pgs88-89]

To those of us who have read some rather strange scholarship on jazz clarinet, these words are a refreshingly clear headed assessment of the era, and worth remembering.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (8)

8. Clarence Hutchenrider & the Casa Loma Orchestra * Smoke Rings * 1937

Born in Waco, Texas in 1908, Clarence Hutchenrider kicked around various regional bands as a young man before ending up in Austin Wylie's Golden Pheasant Orchestra: that important Cleveland training ground which produced such esteemed alumni as trumpeter Billy Butterfield, pianist Claude Thornhill and, most importantly, clarinetist Artie Shaw. When Shaw left Wylie's band for the New York studios, Hutchenrider was his replacement.

But Hutchenrider's days on Prospect Avenue in Cleveland were numbered. He would soon jump from Cleveland's top band to New York's: the Casa Loma Orchestra. In doing so he would temporarily pole vault, career wise, over Shaw himself.

The Casa Loma Orchestra was a unique ensemble. It functioned as a corporation, where the players all owned a share in the business. There were strict rules for remaining a member, and if those rules were broken, the band could buy the offender out and hire someone else. The resulting ensemble was a highly motivated, professional, and loyal group who had a direct stake in their own future--a group which stayed relatively intact for a couple of decades, and dominated the Big Band scene of the early 1930s.

Originally from Detroit, the band was called the "Orange Blossoms" before landing a gig at the Casa Loma in Toronto--a nightclub which, paradoxically, never opened, though the band kept the name. In 1929, when the stock market crashed, work dried up in the Detroit area, so the band relocated to New York.  [see George Simon's The Big Bands] Two years later, Austin Wylie's clarinetist joined the band and became the Casa Loma Orchestra's premiere jazz soloist.

Clarence Hutchenrider's sound tended towards Artie Shaw's: round, warm, velvety. Also like Shaw, his soloing style had the essential starting point of romantic lyricism. I've often wondered if the apprenticeship in Cleveland wasn't a dominant influence on the sound concept of both men. And though it is almost certainly historical coincidence more than anything else, considering also the sound concept of Franklin Cohen (who plays in Cleveland's most successful Orchestra these days, and who has done much to champion the playing of Shaw) I tend to think of this approach to the horn as the "Cleveland Clarinet Sound." There seems to be an emphasis towards fullness, roundness, and above all lyricism--a working within the sound itself--without the more nasal or harsh edges found in other styles of playing.

Thanks in part to Hutchenrider's gorgeous soloing, the Casa Loma Orchestra was the top band of the early 1930s, and set the stage for much of the Big Band Era proper, which most historians agree was launched by Benny Goodman in 1935. Casa Loma was among the first bands to fully tap the potential of playing for college dances, for mastering many styles, and for working in a truly professional manner. Coleman Hawkins, then of the Fletcher Henderson band, would refer to them as his "favorite band" deserving of serious attention (Sudhalter, 347), and Buddy Rich would call them "the most together band ever." (Sudhalter, 351)

Of the top clarinetists of the Big Band era, Clarence Hutchenrider of the Casa Loma Orchestra drifted into the most needless obscurity, and is therefore certainly the most deserving of a renaissance. While other jazz clarinetist's contributions have been unfairly devalued by historians, which is tragic enough, his has been nearly lost.
Further Reading:
Simon, George T. The Big Bands. Schirmer Books, 1982.
Sudhalter, Richard M. Lost Chords. Oxford University Press, 1999.